Marriage and the matter of being “vital to the life of the church”

Marriage of same gender people is NOT a matter that is “vital to the life of the church”.

Since the 15th Assembly concluded almost a month ago, there here has discussion in various places claiming that marriage is a matter “vital to the life of the Church”. The consequence of such a view is that the Assembly should be sending its decision to other councils of the church, seeking their “concurrence” on the decision made.

This is all in accord with what Clause 39 of the Constitution of the Uniting Church specifies. That clause itself depends on a sentence in paragraph 15(e) of the Basis of Union, which refers to “matters of vital importance to the church”.

There was a proposal to that effect presented to the 15th Assembly, immediately after the decision on marriage. The debate enabled members of Assembly to put their points of view about this idea. In the end, the Assembly decided that marriage was NOT a matter “vital to the life of the Church”, and so the Assembly did NOT need to seek the “concurrence” of other councils of the church.

But there has been continued discussion of this idea, and some Presbyteries either have already considered, or will soon be considering, such a proposal.

It’s the business of each Presbytery to come to some decision about this, but I think that an airing of the issues involved is helpful. Indeed, a past President, the Rev. Professor Andrew Dutney, has provided a summary of the arguments for and against that were offered to the Assembly in July. You can read that here

I don’t believe that marriage is a matter that is “vital to the life of the church”.  Here are twelve reasons why:

  1. Our Scripture: Marriage is not prominent in scripture. There are descriptive passages which refer to the wife (or wives) of various men, and there are passages in the Law which relate to marriage customs and practices. But there is no prescriptive definition of marriage, nor is there extensive debate about the conditions required for marriage, the ceremony or ceremonies to be conducted to implement marriage. When Jesus refers to marriage, it is something that is narrated in passing (in a discussion of divorce); it is not put forward as a definitive, prescriptive, in-principle statement.
  2. Our Creeds: Marriage is not mentioned in the historic Creeds: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, or others which flow from these. There is no indication at all in the early centuries of the church, that this was a matter that was seen as significant, central, or vital to the church.
  3. Our Confessions: Marriage is barely given any consideration in any of the confessional documents of the previous denominations. It is mentioned in passing the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) question 108 (but only in passing—the discussion relates to unchastity).There is one chapter in the Westminster Confession (1647), ch. XXIV Of Marriage and Divorce, and one chapter in the Savoy Declaration (1658), ch. XXV Of Marriage. The first four paragraphs are the same statements about marriage in both documents, then the Westminister Confession adds some further paragraphs about divorce. These statements set out an understanding of marriage and declare “marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife”, but nothing is said that in any way indicates it is central, essential, or vital, to the life of Christian faith. (I am grateful to the index of Michael Owen’s Witness of Faith, 1984, for these references.)
  4. Our History: Marriage has not been a “vital matter” for the Uniting Church over the past decades. When we look in Theology for Pilgrims (2008, ed. Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson), we find a collection of documents under the heading “Core Practices of the Church” which relate Ministry, Ordination, the Sacraments, and the use of the Bible, and further documents relating to Communion, Baptism, and the Ordination of Women, under the heading “Theology in Controversy”. There is nothing in any of these documents, or elsewhere in the book, that suggests that Marriage ought to be considered a “core practice” of the church. The same observation holds for Andrew Dutney’s Backyard Theology (2011), where discussion ranges over a number of matters, but not marriage. And this also applies to Building on the Basis: papers from the Uniting Church in Australia 2000-2011 (2012, ed. Chris Walker) and Being and Doing Church: a Uniting Church Perspective (2015, ed. Chris Walker). (All of these works are indicative, not prescriptive; but their contents are telling.)
  5. Recent Debate: Only in very recent times has it been specifically proposed that marriage should be regarded as a “vital matter” for the Uniting Church. This was done only when it became clear that the shifts in society relating to same gender marriage were leading to a shift in understanding of same gender marriage across the Uniting Church. In fact, when the discussion about ordaining people of the same gender was resolved (with such people now regularly being ordained and operating within ministry placements), more conservative elements in the church shifted their attention to the discussion about marrying people of the  same gender. This is what Andrew Dutney has described as the continuation of the “culture wars” within the church. Since the earlier “benchmark” about faith had shifted, attention was now focussed on a new issue. But prior to this, there was never any claim that this was a matter that was “vital to the life of the church”.
  6. Our Theology: Nobody within the Uniting Church argues that our Salvation depends on our marital status, or, indeed, on the spiritual health of our marriage. I can’t recall ever seeing that claimed at any point in the history of the church! The notion that salvation is impeded, or challenged, by being divorced, which might have held in some eras of church history and might still be the case in some denominations today, is certainly not something that would be held by the Uniting Church. So I can’t see how marriage, per se, would be in any way vital to our faith or theology or discipleship.
  7. Our Polity: The practice within the Uniting Church is pastoral concerns about specific matters within the church do not receive blanket and overarching attention; rather, we work contextually and relationally, and decisions about such matters need to be dealt with on case by case basis. This is most certainly what has been happening, in all the discussions over the years about sexuality: about homosexuality (in the 1980s), about homosexuality and leadership (in the 1990s to 2003), and in the discussion about marriage of same gender couples (2012—2018). Indeed, what the 15th Assembly decided with the most recent decision about marrying people of the same gender, is that it is a matter for each Minister or Celebrant to decide whether they will conduct such marriages, and it is a matter for each Church Council to decide whether such marriages will take place on their property. This continues the pattern of sharing responsibility for such matters with the appropriate body within the church.
  8. Our Constitution: Clause 39 of the Constitution of the Uniting Church has never before been invoked, so there is no precedent for this being applied in this instance. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be invoked, but it does mean that we have no specific guidance from a precedent within our own UCA history.
  9. Our Processes (1): We need to think about marriage in the context of other very contentious issues which might have been considered to be matters “vital to the faith” according to Clause 39. The Uniting Church has discussed and made decisions about a number of controversial and significant issues over the years (as already noted). We debated long and hard about Baptism—and, even though it is one of the two Sacraments within the UCA, central to our communal expression of faith, and indeed central to the life of the worldwide church in all its denominational manifestations—it was not deemed to be “vital to the faith” in those discussions. We debated long and hard about Ordination—and, even though it defines a central and important way by which we order the life of the church and set apart people for specific ministries in church and in society, it was not deemed to be “vital to the faith” in those discussions. We introduced the ministry of Deacon, defining it in ways quite different from the way that ministry is understood in other denominations, but we never declared this to be “vital to the faith” in the discussions leading up to this decision.
  10. Our Processes (2): Discussion about marrying people of the same gender has been underway for some years now. It has been discussed in numerous western countries over the past decade, and some countries have determined to introduce it. It has been a focus within Australian society for the past few years, and we have now legislated to enable this to take place. It has been the subject of extensive, open, and honest discussions across the Uniting Church. It has been discussed by the 13th Assembly (2012, Adelaide) and the 14th Assembly (2015, Perth), and now once again at the 15th Assembly (2018, Melbourne). All Synods were invited to make this a feature discussion in their 2017 meetings. Members of multiple Presbyteries and countless Congregations have considered and discussed this matter. It is not something that has been sprung on them without any warning!
  11. Our Ecumenical Relationships: The fear has been invoked, that our ecumenical partners will cease to recognise us as a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and refrain from speaking with us or working with us. I see this as plainly scaremongering. There has been no indication that this would be the case; indeed, I have recently been part of a conversation with the leader of one of the overseas partner churches who attended the Assembly, and when I put this proposition to him, he dismissed it, and said that his church would not act in this way. In fact, he observed, his church remains in partner relationships with denominations which have made similar decisions about same gender marriage, in the UK, the USA, Canada, and Aotearoa New Zealand.
  12. Our Pastoral Responsibility: We have a pastoral responsibility to deal with this matter in a manner that is sensitive to members of the church and in a manner that ensures that we are providing a safe space for ongoing discussion. There is a long commitment to this, at least in principle:
    In 1987, the Assembly Standing Committee affirmed that all baptised Christians belong in the church, regardless of their sexual orientation.
    In 1997, the 8th Assembly rejected judgemental attitudes in sexual ethics.
    In 2003, the 10th Assembly noted that the placement of ministers was to be undertaken on a case by case basis, and that the matter of a person’s sexual preference or identity was not to be considered.
    In 2006, the 11th Assembly underlined the need to ensure that we provide safe communities where people may hold diverse beliefs about sexuality. Yet the continued debate about, and incessant scrutiny of, same gender attracted people is placing immense pressure on them. Pastoral sensitivity would suggest to us, that this is no longer an issue to be debated “in the abstract”, but that any such discussion we have involves real people in real situations, who have been through the emotional wringer in recent years, and whom we should be treating with much greater respect and compassion.  Re-opening the matter for further consultation and discussion right across the church will not be helpful in this context.

Christian compassion should surely lead us to the point of saying, this was a difficult decision made in good conscience by faithful people through prayer and discernment. A significantly large proportion of the membership of the 15th Assembly, including people from a wide range of theological perspectives, supported the decision. The leadership provided by this designated council has set the direction, and we are enjoined to respect that decision. The 15th Assembly recognised that there was a diversity of theological and ethical views on the marriage of same gender people. Now, as a Church, we are called to work together to support one another across our diversity and to implement practices that honour and respect each other as members and participants in the one body, the Church.

How can that NOT be what we are now called to do?

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

18 thoughts on “Marriage and the matter of being “vital to the life of the church””

  1. I believe the issue is blessing something = homosexual behaviour – which is specifically proscribed in Scripture, both New Testament and Old. Further is the issue of Salvation, which is never dependent on marital status, but upon the Grace of God through faith Christ Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. The crucial evidence of ‘faith’ is obedience and “repentance from dead works and faith towards God” are called ‘Foundations’ in Heb.6:1. When I came to Christ from a publicly sinful lifestyle (which did not affect others negatively in general) I needed to repent of my sins – abuse of substances, lax attitudes towards (consentual) sex and blasphemous language to name some core issues – I’m just not sure why we would now be telling people that immorality is not only ok, but we can condone and bless it as God ordained!! “Bugger” was a word key in an advertising campaign some 10 years ago – not a word used in polite society for obvious reasons. Why then are we blessing Buggery? The reason is that the language used to discuss SSM has been modified so that what it means (for males at least) is no longer a discussion of the homosexual acts, but of ‘love’. I don’t wish to make more of this and have no desire to be offensive for its own sake, but this is a cat crying out to be belled.
    I personally have same sex attracted friends both female and male, and enjoy social interaction with them – including supporting a friend whose partner died. I don’t hate anyone irrespective of their sins – Christ died for us all as we have all fallen short of the glory of our HOLY God. We should be living the life loving people, but sharing the life of righteousness through repentance and the filling of the Holy Spirit.
    Respectfully, Pastor Mark Callaghan – lay ministry placement Maclean Multicentre Congregation.

    1. Hi Mark. Thanks for your comment.
      I appreciate your personal honesty in telling part of your story and value the fact that you have found a fulfilling faith.
      I understand that the focus in discussions of same-gender attracted people in the UCA for over 20 years has not been on the precise sexual activity that may be involved, but on the quality of relationship where people are loving, committed, faithful to one another, and compassionate in their lives with each other. The kind of language that you refer to is both unsatisfactory in its reference point and derogatory in tone, and that’s why it has been avoided.
      Alongside that, I interpret the biblical references to same gender sexual activity in ways that are different from what you have stated. There’s an earlier post where I have reflected somewhat on this.
      With best wishes, John.

  2. John,
    This raises two questions, the answers to which would be helpful in understanding the concept of matters vital to the life of the church:
    1. Could you please provide the criteria to be satisfied before a matter will be considered vital to the life of the church?
    2. Could you please provide examples of matters which are vital to the life of the church?
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Warren.
      These are good questions. My understanding is that Clause 39 has never been utilised, so there are no precedents within the Uniting Church as to what constitutes a matter “vital to the life of the church”. The legal opinion informally expressed during the Assembly was that there is no exisiting definition of what would meet this, so it is up to the Church in its councils to so determine.
      So I can’t answer either question; all I have sought to do is offer an opinion and the rationale for that opinion. But it is ultimately a matter for the councils of the church to consider and determine.
      Regards, John.

      1. John,
        Your 12 reasons imply that you believe there are at least 12 criteria that marriage fails to satisfy, concluding, therefore, that marriage is not vital. I understand this is just your opinion, but there are two consequences of having no agreed definition for Clause 39. One is that it makes it almost impossible to argue for a matter to be vital. The second of course is that all arguments against a matter being vital likewise carry no weight.
        If no one knows where the goalposts are then you’ll never know if you’ve kicked a goal. On the other hand, no-one can argue that you missed.

  3. I find it strange that a triennial Assembly meeting would bother speaking of matters which are not of vital importance to the life of the church. Waste of money really if that’s what’s happening. But the Assembly decision to not refer this to the councils of the church is hardly because it wasn’t considered to be a matter of vital importance—why else invest so much time and so many resources over the past 6 years to try to come to the point we are now at? So, the decision to not refer is an indictment on the Assembly which ever way you look at it—either Assembly has been wasting time and resources, or else it is obfuscating when it decides it is not a matter of vital importance.

    I take issue with a number of your reasons. (1) Marriage not prominent in Scripture?? There is a line through Genesis, Song of Songs, Ezekiel, Hosea, the Gospels, Ephesians, and Revelation that deeply ties the gift of male-female marriage to the redemptive acts of God in Jesus Christ. Pretty prominent in my view. (2) Whilst marriage is not in the Creeds, the matters we do have in the Creeds were not abstractly arrived at; they were confessions in the face of error. The Western church is in error now about the nature of marriage and its implications for Christology, ecclesiology and eschatology (to name a few doctrines this error impacts on) and in my opinion we are at a new confessional moment. It is now that this error has arisen, and so that would also be why (3) and (4) it has not appeared in core confessional documents or in (less) recent debate. (6) There would be some that would argue that this is a salvation issue—that the church offers a false view of salvation when it blurs the consistent, Biblically arrived-at view of the church until the Western heresy of the past 20-30 years that homosexual behaviour is sinful.

    1. Hi Andrew. Thanks for your comments. I think that the Assembly was addressing the matter precisely because it WAS considered something that was worth attention in the national council of the church, because there HAD been extensive discussion of this matter over the preceding six years, and it was felt that this WAS the time when a decision ought to be made. So the decision was taken to move to formal proceedings so that a decision could be made. This is all in accord with the processes that we follow in the Manual for Meetings.

      Its interesting that you see this issue as presenting a “confessional moment” for the Church. Jesus was very concerned about the vision of justice for all that is integral to the Kingdom of God; he spoke about this, told stories about it, encouraged his followers to seek this vision of the Kingdom. He reminded the rich that they had responsibilities towards the poor, and even instructed one rich person about how hard it would be for him to enter that Kingdom. When I look at all the injustice and inequity, all the ingrained poverty and systemic destitution, in our world today, I wonder why this, for instance, is not actually the catalyst for a “confessional moment”??

      The ongoing fixation on sexuality as the focus of faith is demeaning to the grand vision that Jesus offered us. Why can’t we move on from these matters, to bigger and more substantive issues?

  4. This important clause does not say ‘vital to the theology of the Church’, but ‘vital to the life of the Church’. Consequently much of the argument in the 12 points above sidesteps the question of the Church’s life as a result of this decision. Since there is no written definition of the meaning of a matter vital to the life of the Church, it is obvious that the plain reading of the words should be the meaning. A matter is vital to the life of the Church if for some reason it is vital to the life, i.e. functioning, well-being, unity, fairness and future of the church. There is no doubt that this decision will affect the life of the Uniting Church in a vital way. The reason is that for so many members, ministers and congregations, the theology and practice of same-gender marriage is a step too far. It matters not whether these folk are right or wrong in their convictions. What matters is that they find themselves compelled to act as a result of this decision. ‘johntsquires’ may feel very pleased that he has the ability to wrap the matter in is 12 reasons, but he can do nothing to relieve the pain of hundreds of congregations and thousands of members who entered the union of churches in good faith, but now find themselves imprisoned in a autocratic denomination whose statements and actions are quite alien to them, and become more alien with each passing Assembly meeting.

    1. I don’t get how you call it autocratic when there was so much consultation and a thorough process of discernment and a vote?

      1. Yes, that’s right, Elise. Thanks for your comment. Three Assemblies in a row have now discussed this issue. Many Presbyteries have devoted sessions or whole days to discussing it. Two of those Presbyteries brought proposals to the 15th Assembly. Every Synod was asked to spend a session in respectful conversation about marrying same gender people, and invited to make comments and suggestions to the Assembly. Almost all of the Synods did this. A number of national dialogues on the matter were held, each of multiple days in length, and each drawing people from each Synod, to speak and listen, to pray and discern, in advance of the Assembly. A number of Moderators held special forum meetings in advance of the 15th Assembly, to discuss the proposal when it was published. I attended one in my Synod and know of a number of other such events. By the time the 265 members of Assembly arrived in Melbourne, they had been well-prepared for the discussions and had been made well aware of the issues involved. The process at the Assembly itself was careful, prayerful, and thoughtful, enabling every member to articulate their views through their community working group times. It was indeed a most thorough process.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Rod.

      I must say that I feel no pleasure at all in devoting attention and energy to this matter. I did not relish trying to articulate why I felt this was not a matter vital to the life of the church. But I was impelled to try to state why. I appreciate that people feel aggrieved by the decision, but I am certain that there has been no intention to wound. After all, the decision actually allows each person of faith within the UCA to continue to hold the beliefs that they earnestly and honestly hold, and not to feel pressed upon to believe any differently. I can’t see how that enforces pain on people.

      Alongside this, of course, has been the enduring and intense pain felt by people who are same gender attracted, who have weathered public scorn and abuse, who have sat through an unnecessary and vitriolic debate in our public life, and who have now heard their church affirm them, support them, and encourage them. Why isn’t that a cause of rejoicing? Why does that impress pain on others with different views? I would have thought that some basic human empathy would lead people who hold different views, at least to recognise and rejoice in the affirmations that their sisters and brothers in faith are now receiving from the Assembly decision.

  5. Hi John
    Thanks for the post. I had conversations about whether the issue of ‘marriage’ was ‘vital to the life of the church’ among my colleagues in the World Methodist Council. Many of the Methodist churches in different parts of the world have been exploring similar questions to us. While NZ and Canada both had a broader understanding of marriage well before us, in other countries, there remain struggles. Some conferences have determined to do things differently from their neighbours. Nevertheless, we all sat together, worshipped together, and were church together.

    Vitality, it seems, is largely about the willingness of different participants to live life together or not. I think that for most of the UCA the issue of marriage being offered to couples who are of the same gender is about how it now exists in the society we are placed in. Is the church engaged in ministry among the people for whom Christ came, lived and died and was raised again? Or only those in an exclusive club? We dont require people to be members of the UCA or even baptized in order to marry them. That sets us apart from Orthodox, who only marry the baptized. Given that we dont require people to be Christian to marry them, it seems odd to apply some of the expectations people have expressed.

    In terms of the vitality in the UCA, some of our most vital ministry communities and leaders include gay couples. They have served us well and faithfully for many years. Thanks for the post,

    1. Thanks for these comments, Amelia. Vitality is a contested term these days. Your description is very helpful. We have a particular form of vitality in our midst in the UCA, and we should be most grateful for that!

  6. I cannot see how marriage is ‘vital to the life of the church’ when we didn’t see the need to seek concurrence of the Councils with issues such as baptism, which is a sacrament and an integral part of faith. Nor do I understand the focus on this particular behaviour, when Romans 1 gives equal weight to things such as ’slander’, ’gossip’ and ‘foolishness’. Where are the public condemnations of these things? Lastly, I think as Christians we would be far better focussing on real human issues, such as world poverty, and starving and gassing Syrian and Rohingan children.

  7. Seems to me that the vitality of the Uniting Church is well compromised already!
    If not compromised ,at least confused.!
    If we take the Bible as our authority we see male and female blessed in Genesis ,and homosexual behaviour canned in both Abraham’s time and Pauls’
    if we look at mediaeval history ,we see brotherhoods ,sisterhoods and other living arrangements to which people can vow themselves,which are not the same as marriage. Why try to make marriage the vehicle for all kinds of communities?

  8. In my reading of the Bible, the theme of marriage is one of the most important. It runs through the whole message of God’s love for His people. However it is not always referred to using the word ‘marriage’. But consider the covenant that God enters into with the Israelites. It is like a marriage convenant: a promise to love, fidelity, and sacrifice. At times God behaves like a jealous husband when His people go off and worship other gods. The Song of Songs is a love song between God and his people and reads like a love song between a husband and wife. And Christ is described as the bridegroom of the church, his bride. The language of the marriage relationship is everywhere. As Christians in marriage we are to show a picture of God’s relationship with His people, and point people to God. Please, please don’t dismiss the vital aspect of marriage as part of our understanding of who God is, and our relationship with HIm.

    1. Thanks for giving this your consideration, Sally. However, I think it is around the other way.

      Most reputable Old Testament scholars would say that Covenant is the central way that the relationship between God and the people of Israel is understood, and that marriage is one way that human beings can understand what that central covenant relationship is like. We draw on the experience of human relationships to understand how God enters into relationship with human beings.

      If we take that understanding (Covenant is central) as the starting point for our considerations, then when we explore human relationships, we can surely deduce that relationships which reflect this Covenant—that is, which are respectful, loving, committed, and honouring of the other in a mutually beneficial relationship—are to be valued, affirmed, celebrated, and encouraged.

      In that context, respectful, loving, committed relationships involving two people of the same gender ought surely to be celebrated and affirmed by a recognition of marriage between such couples.

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